Birdcloud sing of blackouts and pills and dead dogs and skeezy hook-ups and other things my mama wouldn’t want me talking about in public.
Every SXSW has that band whose buzz seems inescapable, and 2016 belongs to the Spanish surf-garage act Hinds, arriving on the heels of its first full-length album Leave Me Alone. Solitude is definitely not what they’ll be seeking here in Austin, as the band is slated for 17 shows over the week. I was lucky enough to get in on the second one, an afternoon gig at the reggae bar Flamingo Cantina. Hinds pulls off the great balancing act of being contemporary retro, with songs that are essentially indebted to ’60s girl groups, surf, and garage rock, but made fresh in the hands of Carlotta Cosials, Ana Perrote, Ade Martin, and Amber Gimbergen. Cosials and Perrote trade off vocals over a dreamy pop bed of sound. There’s a shrillness that leaks into the numbers now and again, but that edge actually creates just enough tension to keep the songs from being simply pretty. There’s an ear for a hook here, assuredly, and the group has charisma in spades with a cool-girl-next-door vibe. And they know it. “If I keep making funny faces, it’s because the microphone is giving me electricity,” Cosials explained at one point. “No,” she paused, thinking better of it. “I’m giving it electricity.” Hinds ran through much of the new album here and elicited audible groans when they announced their last song. Calm down, guys, there’s 15 more shows to go.
One of the more curious spaces hosting music for the week, right in the shadow of the convention center, is the O. Henry Museum, historic home of one of America’s most influential authors. On Wednesday afternoon, Thor Harris held court on the front porch. Best known as a multi-instrumentalist with Shearwater, Swans, Amanda Palmer, and Bill Callahan, Harris started here by picking up a duduk, an Armenian flute—to sooth us all, he said, in the face of this musical storm around us. He’s really more soothsayer than soother, though, and post-duduk, Harris began a winding parable situating his audience in historical Austin. Among O. Henry’s many claims to fame, he explained, the author had named the world’s first documented serial killer: the “servant girl annihilator” who terrorized Austin in the early 1880s, just before Jack the Ripper haunted London’s east end. Harris followed the story through all of its gory details, emphasizing that nothing of its like had been seen before. The Convention Center at his back, the festival swirling around him, and accompanied by synth samples he manipulated now and again during the story’s telling, Harris closed with the deadpan lesson: “Austin has been a home for new ideas forever. This guy was an innovator.” He then switched to xylophone.
Harris also mentioned that the servant girl annihilator had only been caught due to a fight he got in at a venerable East Austin bar, the Scoot Inn. I headed there next, in part because I liked the narrative through-line Thor had handed me, but also because badbadnotgood, White Denim, and the Black Angels were playing. The Lagunitas party turned out to be a bit of a bust, as not only did the line wrap around the building, but across the street there was even a line to get into the line.
A U-turn delivered me to the neon-festooned environs of Cheer-Up Charlies, where Guerrilla Toss had brought out a younger crowd. Amid digital projections, the band reveled in chaos and discordance, colored by hip-hop with a heavy dose of Tune-Yards. Their band bio promises “a hurricane of healing bliss,” which is fair enough. What started out as sonic assault built into a danceable groove by show’s end.
Guerrilla Toss set the perfect mood for Prince Rama. Performance artists as much as band, Prince Rama proselytizes as much as they play, with Taraka Larson leading the crowd in a disco new age ritual that bounces, shimmers, hypnotizes. (There may or may not have been a sword involved.) Working through the group’s new album while moving toward the climactic anthem “Those Who Live for Love Will Live Forever,” Larson bounded into and floated above the crowd, with each lyric invoking pop’s timeless present: the “XTreme Now” of the Prince Rama mythos, Prince Rama dancing right on past the end of history into the final days. In a festival of 2,000 acts, each in the end not so unlike the other, grounded in hunger to communicate the human experience, Prince Rama is Ragnarok Psych-Funk, the festival’s ouroboros that makes all else obsolete, leaving my musical quest at its end.
Then I walked outside for a rock band. Vancouver’s White Lung channeled Lita Ford metal and stripped-down punk in equal parts, a formula initially jarring for a sunny afternoon outside, but undeniably powerful.
In seeking out Bloodshot Records stalwarts the Waco Brothers at Shangri-La, I ran into one of the banes of the festival, as sound issues at the venue had pushed back the day’s schedule rather significantly. Nevertheless, Danish band Foreign Resort soldiered through technical difficulties with aplomb. Like White Lung, this may not exactly be day-party music, with a moody sound that seemed to draw on both Manchester atmospherics and Billy Bragg conscience, but it’s smart, and textured, and worth further exploration.
As I’d been steeped in nightclub acts playing outdoors in the day, it was merciful when darkness actually began to fall, and I was able to slip into the corner of a bar for the noir-ish synth-rock of Pr0files. The first of a few fog machines kicked in here, too, as singer Lauren Pardini and instrumentalist Danny Sternbaum channeled a smooth, sultry atmosphere that—and this may sound like a slander at first, but it’s meant as high praise—could serve as the closing credits for every ’80s film. It’s a dark street, a rare Los Angeles rain, a sinister montage before the decisive action hits.
Wednesday was also the first of this year’s K-Pop nights, always a festival highlight, as South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism showcases the best the country has to offer across a range of genres, not just the K-Poppers proper. Victim Mentality delivered a pitch-perfect ’80s metal performance, lead singer Krockodile doing Ozzy way better than Ozzy does. By closing number “Heavy Metal Is Back,” I was fully convinced that hard-rock earnestness and straight-ahead virtuosity still might make it in this otherwise cynical industry festival. Love X Stereo came next, sharing little with Victim Mentality apart from their nationality, although they are virtuosic in their own chosen brand of indie electro-rock. It was danceable and catchy, but the energy from the previous set was a bit hard to follow.
And then, with Mamamoo, we came to the real stuff, the pure, unadulterated K-Pop. It was by this point clear that K-Pop was what the audience had come to see, including a very large Korean contingent who responded raucously to the stage banter before its English translation. K-Pop is obviously a different world of performance. There were no instruments on stage by this point, but simply four mics for the singers as they engaged in elaborate, playful choreography over a backing track. K-Pop’s swirling together of hip-hop attitude and pop sheen is fascinating and endearing, as is girl group Mamamoo’s inclusion of rapped verses between American Idol–style solos. The crowd absolutely loved it. There were handmade signs in Korean, and plenty of screaming and swooning that brought to mind nothing so much as Beatlemania…or Bieber.
In contrast to the shiny surfaces of K-Pop, rock legend Leon Russell ruled over the iconic blues club Antone’s. A legend and eminence grise, Russell got his start as a piano- and organ-playing session musician in the heady days of mid-’60s Los Angeles rock ’n’ roll. He got his star turn upstaging Joe Cocker in the concert film Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and made Tulsa a seat of the progressive country ’70s with his Shelter Records imprint. The man is getting up there in age, but took on his Antone’s set with a blistering energy, starting with “I Got a Woman” and singing his heart out through a covers-heavy, crowd-pleasing set that included “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Wild Horses,” “Georgia,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” and his originals such as “Delta Lady.”
Headed east, Hotel Vegas’s SXSW was now in full effect. In keeping with my Americana turn, their late Wednesday night featured some of the best honky-tonk of the festival. Leo Rondeau had the midnight slot with a tight country band that is one of the leading lights of Austin’s White Horse scene. There was a higher density of cowboy hats here at this moment than perhaps at any other spot in town. And Rondeau also brought with him the White Horse two-stepping crowd, a group of recognizable regulars who constitute a subculture every bit as tight and curious as K-Pop fandom. Here’s hoping there were at least a few Europeans in the room who got to see their Texas stereotypes fulfilled.
Of course, on the other side of the wall, Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls simultaneously roared across Hotel Vegas’s outside stage. He had a better crowd for this set than he did at the smaller Lost Well the night before, and brought out a few different tricks, from a Bo Diddley number complete with harmonica, to a series of mash-ups with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys. As gangsta-glam continued outside, raunchy girl-country duo Birdcloud followed Leo Rondeau inside, and worked perfectly well as an end-of-the-night act. At first glance, Nashville’s Birdcloud would seem to be one of those classic guitar-and-mandolin sister duos, complete with pretty, pretty harmonies. I take that back. At first glance on the Hotel Vegas stage, Birdcloud was two women in their underwear and cowboy boots. They drag that old sister duet tradition deep into the gutter and drown it, laughing all the while. I was reminded of the trashy Southern gothic of Thelma and the Sleaze that I had seen on the same stage the day before. Birdcloud sing of blackouts and pills and dead dogs and skeezy hook-ups and other things my mama wouldn’t want me talking about in public. And as they sing and banter their way into the crowd’s good graces, they seem to be having absolutely the most fun of any act I’ve seen thus far.
And with that, it’s closing time for Wednesday. | Jason Mellard